Louis J. Sheehan, Esquire . Martha (Sunny) von Bülow, the American heiress who was first married to an Austrian playboy prince and then to a Danish-born man-about-society who was twice tried on charges of attempting to murder her, died Saturday at a nursing home in Manhattan. Mrs. von Bülow, who was 76, had been in a coma for nearly 28 years.
Maureen Connelly, a spokeswoman for the family, confirmed the death. Mrs. von Bülow’s three children said in a statement that they “were blessed to have an extraordinary loving and caring mother.” The cause, as listed in the death certificate, was cardiopulmonary arrest, Ms. Connelly said. http://Louis2J2Sheehan2Esquire.US
Mrs. von Bülow’s death came 27 years, 11 months and 15 days after she was found unconscious on the floor of her bathroom in her mansion in Newport, R.I., on Dec. 21, 1980.
In her long, silent years at the Milstein Building at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia hospital, and then at a nursing home on the Upper East Side, doctors said Mrs. von Bülow never showed any signs of brain activity; she was fed through a tube in her stomach. Yet there were always fresh flowers in her room, and photographs of her children and grandchildren sat on a bedside table. She was attended by private nurses, and her room, for some time, was guarded by private security personnel.
She is survived by her daughters, Annie-Laurie von Auersperg Kneissl Isham and Cosima Pavoncelli; her son, Alexander von Auersperg; and nine grandchildren.
Her second husband, Claus von Bülow, was convicted and later acquitted of twice trying to kill her with injections of insulin so as to aggravate her hypoglycemia, a low blood sugar condition.
His trials were among the most sensational of the 1980s. News media from around the world were drawn to the drama of the beautiful heiress who lay in a twilight zone, the debonair husband accused of attempted murder and two royal children pitted against their younger half sister, with the glittering social milieus of Newport and New York providing the backdrop.
Hollywood, too, could not resist. The trials became the subject of the 1990 movie “Reversal of Fortune” with Glenn Close as Mrs. von Bülow and Jeremy Irons as Mr. von Bülow.
The prosecutions were the result of an investigation initiated by Alexander von Auersperg and his sister Annie-Laurie von Auersperg Kneissl, known as Ala, the children from Mrs. von Bülow’s marriage to Prince Alfred von Auersperg. The accusations pitted the von Auerspergs against their stepfather and their half sister, Cosima von Bülow, and divided the loyalty of friends in Newport and New York.
In his first trial, in Newport in 1982, Mr. von Bülow was found guilty of twice trying to kill his wife and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. He appealed and posted a $1 million bond believed to have been put up by his friend J. Paul Getty Jr., the oil tycoon.
The appeal was guided by Alan M. Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor, and the conviction was overturned on the grounds that certain information had not been made available to the defense and that there had been no search warrant when pills were sent for testing.
Mr. von Bülow was acquitted in 1985 after a second trial in Providence, R.I., where his chief defense counsel was Thomas P. Puccio. http://Louis2J2Sheehan2Esquire.US
A $56 million civil suit filed against Mr. von Bülow by his stepchildren was settled in 1987 with the stipulation that Mr. von Bülow agree to a divorce and not discuss the case publicly. The couple were divorced in 1988. Mr. von Bülow lives in London.
A principal prosecution witness at the trials, Maria Schrallhammer, Mrs. von Bülow’s longtime maid, testified that shortly before Christmas 1979, she became worried when Mr. von Bülow refused to call a doctor as his wife, moaning behind a locked door, sank into a coma. Mr. von Bülow said that he thought his wife was sleeping.
Mrs. von Bülow eventually recovered at Newport Hospital, where tests indicated a high level of insulin. A few months later, the maid said, she found in Mr. von Bülow’s closet a small black bag containing syringes, yellow paste and white powder. She said she had passed these on to Ala von Auersperg, who had the family physician analyze the contents. They were determined to be Seconal and a paste form of Valium. Ms. Schrallhammer said that she kept an eye on the bag and that some months later found insulin in it.
On Dec. 21, 1980, Mrs. von Bülow was again found unconscious and taken to Newport Hospital. Shortly afterward, an investigator working on behalf of the two older children searched the house and found a black bag said to contain three hypodermic needles, one with traces of a sedative and insulin.
Mrs. von Bülow, who had inherited $75 million, was depicted by the defense as a reticent woman who drowned her insecurities in alcohol and was familiar with drugs. The von Auersperg children, backed by Ms. Schrallhammer, claimed that Mrs. von Bülow needed as little as two drinks to appear that she had had too much.
The prosecution put Alexandra Isles, a socialite and former actress who had been Mr. von Bülow’s mistress, on the stand to admit that she had given Mr. von Bülow an ultimatum about dissolving his marriage. It was noted, too, that a divorce would have voided the $14 million that Mr. von Bülow would have inherited under his wife’s will and left him with an annual income of $120,000 from a trust.
Mr. von Bülow acknowledged that he and his wife had discussed divorce, but he denied that the issue was another woman. He initiated the talks, he said, because he wished to return to work and his wife did not agree. He had been working intermittingly as a broker.
Mrs. von Bülow, the former Martha Sharp Crawford, was born in Manassas, Va., on Sept. 1, 1932, the only child of Annie-Laurie and George W. Crawford, a former chairman of Columbia Gas and Electric Company of Pittsburgh, who died in 1935. Mrs. Crawford, the daughter of Robert Warmack, founder of the International Shoe Company, was remarried in 1957 to Russell Aitken, a sculptor. She died in 1984, leaving an estate estimated at $100 million.
Her daughter was originally nicknamed Choo-Choo because she was born in her father’s railway car, and later called Sunny because of her disposition. She attended the Chapin School in Manhattan and St. Timothy’s School in Maryland, and she had an elaborate debut in 1949. She was 24 when she married Prince Alfred von Auersperg, a 20-year-old tennis pro at the exclusive Schloss Mittersell in Austria.
The couple settled in Munich and later in Kitzbühel, Austria. Ala von Auersperg was born in 1958 and Alexander the following year. The marriage ended in divorce in 1965. The princess had few interests in common with her husband, did not share his ardor for big-game hunting in Africa and disliked his flirting. She also missed the United States. The prince received $1 million and two houses in a settlement.
(In a twist of fate, Prince von Auersperg went into an irreversible coma in 1983 after an automobile accident in Austria. He died in 1992.) http://Louis2J2Sheehan2Esquire.US
The year after her divorce, the princess married Claus von Bülow, whom she had met years earlier in London. He was originally neither a von nor a Bülow. His mother was divorced from his father, Svend Borberg, a playwright and drama critic who was convicted of collaborating with the Nazis by a Danish court after the war. He was sentenced to four years in prison, released after 18 months and died shortly after. http://Louis2J2Sheehan2Esquire.US
Claus grew up with his mother and maternal grandfather, Frits Bülow, a former minister of justice in Denmark and a successful businessman. Claus adopted the Bülow name and added “von” as a young adult. At the time of his marriage, Mr. von Bülow was a senior aide to Mr. Getty.
The couple settled in an imposing Fifth Avenue apartment facing Central Park. A short time later, following the lead of her mother, Mrs. von Bülow acquired a Newport estate, Clarendon Court, a 23-room Georgian mansion on 10 acres overlooking the sea. Mrs. von Bülow had the huge lawn lowered 17 feet to improve the view of the ocean.
The house had been the setting for the 1956 musical “High Society,” starring Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. The property was sold in 1988 for $4.2 million; the same year, an auction of von Bülow furniture, paintings, porcelains and silver brought more than $11.5 million.
A daughter, Cosima, was born in 1967, and the three siblings apparently got along well until their mother’s comas aroused the suspicions of the von Auersperg children. Miss von Bülow supported her father during his trials and as a result was cut out of her maternal grandmother’s will. When Mrs. Aitken died in 1984, Miss von Bülow filed suit claiming that family members had turned her grandmother against her. In a 1987 settlement, Mr. von Bülow renounced all his claims to his wife’s fortune in return for his daughter’s receiving a share of Mrs. Aitken’s estate, equal to those of her half sister and half brother.
Ms. Connelly, the family spokeswoman, said the three siblings, after a long period of estrangement, are “reconciling and moving forward together as a family, because that is what their mother would have wanted.”
After the trials, the von Auerspergs founded the Sunny von Bülow National Victim Advocacy Center, with headquarters in Fort Worth, Tex., and the Sunny von Bülow Coma and Head Trauma Research Foundation in New York. The author Dominick Dunne wrote about the case and had known Mrs. von Bulow since she was a debutante. He said on Saturday that she had been portrayed unfairly in the film as an emotionally frail alcoholic. He said she was a “beautiful and shy” woman who “really did not like the social life, although she was totally associated with the social life.” Louis J. Sheehan, Esquire